Friday, December 30, 2011

Words from the Casa Azul

“Often I feel more sympathy for carpenters, shoe repairmen, etc., than for all that herd of fools who think they are civilized, loquacious, so-called scholarly people.” Frida Kahlo

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Books in 2011: A Personal Selection

During 2011, a year of pretty much unending rough waters, a number of interesting books nevertheless came into my life and. As I have done in years past, I wanted to share my thoughts about some of the more notable ones here.

Best regards and hopes for a 2012 with more love, peace, prosperity and life.



A Palace in the Old Village By Tahar Ben Jelloun

A moving and perceptive chronicle of the lives of a Moroccan immigrant and his family in modern France, Ben Jelloun's novel descends into surrealistic absurdity in its final pages but before doing so nevertheless gives us an important glimpse into the experience of the “new” French in their adopted country.

Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efraín Ríos Montt, 1982-1983 by Virginia Garrard-Burnett

An important and exquisitely researched book that sheds light on one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s violent history, this work by University of Texas professor Virginia Garrard-Burnett examines the March 1982 to August 1983 rule of Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt, a former general, candidate in the 1974 Guatemalan elections (which he likely won but had stolen from him by the same military he had once served) and subsequent founder of Frente Republicano Guatemalteco, seized power from another military man, General Romeo Lucas García, who had presided over what Garrard-Burnett characterizes as “a rapid downward spiral of capricious violence and death.” Those hoping for a break in the country’s civil war, however, - which would only end with 1996 peace accords - were in for a rude awakening. Ríos Montt’s anti-guerrilla campaign, centred largely on indigenous peasant communities, was “more methodical and less chaotic than Lucas García counterinsurgency, but it was also more deadly.”

Ríos Montt’s idiosyncratic populism at the time, propelled forward by his evangelical Christianity, revealed the general to be “anything but a puppet of the far right,” notes Garrard-Burnett. “(He) believed himself to be a prophetic leader, brought by Providence to power at a particular moment in history in which he could lead the people of Guatemala against the forces of evil that besieged them on every side.”

The result was cataclysm, and Garrard-Burnett expertly documents it in great detail here.

Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans by James Gill

A book about the often racially-charged origins of some of the major krewes of New Orleans' storied Mardi Gras (such as Comus, Rex and Momus), this book by a British-transplant living in New Orleans masterfully draws back the curtain on an aspect of the city's carnival revelry that many in its still-ossified economic structure would likely just as soon forget.

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? By Francisco Goldman

A gripping account of the investigation into the April 1998 murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, this book (written by the Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman) reads like a detective novel and reveals the corrupt linkages of Guatemala’s criminal and military elements. A compelling picture of the struggles of committed individuals against a diffuse and often lethal enemy, it also contains disturbing suggestions about the activities of Guatemala’s incoming president, former General Otto Pérez Molina.

Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 by William Ivy Hair

More a pogrom against the Africa-American population of New Orleans than a riot, this account by Ivy Hair tells the story of Robert Charles and, along with the work of historians like John Hope Franklin, serves as an important reminder to Americans of the brutal injustices inflicted on African-Americans after the Civil War, all in the name of scuttling the aims of Reconstruction in the American South.

The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge by Paul Preston

Another example of how a military leader viewed a civil war as a moral-religious crusade, this book by one of the best historians of Span’s recent history makes one wonder how Spain’s Francisco Franco escaped his proper place in the annals of history’s great monsters alongside Hitler and Stalin.

The scale of the slaughter by Franco’s forces - 3,000 killed in Zamora, 3,000 in Valladolid, 2,789 in Navarra, and on and on - still shocks, and Preston lays blame where it belongs, on the shoulders of such largely forgotten Francoist chieftains as General Juan Yague. Preston’s deft exposure of Franc’s “notion of a war of moral redemption by terror,” makes one look forward with expectation to his forthcoming book, author of the much-anticipated forthcoming The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain.

Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by Gérard Prunier

An expansive yet nuanced view of the first and second Congo wars, this book is an essential addition to scholarship on the region. Prunier, a longtime observer, analyst and resident of Central Africa, is also an unusually honest and self-critical academic, a fact that adds gravitas to his criticisms of African governments and the international community when dealing with the region’s severe, but by no means intractable, problems.

Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth by Erin Siegal

This debut book by journalist and photographer Erin Siegal has a mystery at its core: What happened to the two young daughters of an impoverished Guatemala woman named Mildred Alvarado, one of whom was literally snatched from her mother’s womb? But the book — comprised of heavy-duty investigative reporting and compelling personal testimony — also examines another mystery: How could so many people in Guatemala and the United States turn a blind eye for so long to an industry that, far from being motivated by the altruistic urge to unite needy children with loving families, has become a world where adults dole out children like cards from a deck and view their young lives as little more than a commodity to be exploited? I reviewed it for the Miami Herald.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason K. Stearns

An interesting book that very laudably seeks to bring the experiences of the Congolese themselves in their own voices to the forefront of an account of that country’s ongoing conflicts. Perhaps a little soft for my taste in its assessments of the failings of the international community and non-governmental organizations operating in Central Africa, but all in all a highly worthwhile read that brings the reality of the conflict home via the eloquent voices of the Congolese who suffered its consequences

Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans by David Stoll

A serious and groundbreaking scholarly work that was unfortunately subject to rather vehemently libelous calumny when it first appeared in 1999, this book sees Stoll - probably the best American anthropologist working on Guatemala - examining both the specifics and broader historical context of the autobiography of perhaps the most famous living Guatemalan. On the way, much as he did with his excellent previous volume, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, Stoll gives the reader of nuanced picture of the torturous position that Guatemala’s indigenous population found itself in during that country’s long civil war and raises some troubling questions about the veracity of Menchu’s famous autobiography.

Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson

A relic from the days when American cultural and political commentators actually had a brain, this collection of loosely-connected short stories casts a witty and darkly jaundiced eye on the upper-middle classes of a fictional bedroom community outside of New York, and within the city itself during the years between the great wars. Wilson, who had previously made his mark with his history of revolutionary thought in Europe, To the Finland Station, was as original and probing a mind as American letters has produced.

Friday, December 16, 2011

In Memoriam: Sebastian Quezada

Sebastian Quezada, one of my best and dearest friends. Thank you for your friendship, I learned so much from you, see you on the other side, hermano. Cuídate.

The stories of the times that Sebastian and I have had together since our first meeting in 1992 could fill a book, although likely one of the transgressive literature variety. Even when we had gone without seeing one another or speaking on the phone for months, I always counted Sebastian as one of my best friends, the kind of person with whom, when you meet up again, you pick up as if no time at all had passed, the kind of person who would open their door, their wallet and their heart to friends in need without a moment's hesitation and without having to be asked twice. If it wasn't for Sebastian, I would never have been able to even begin living in New York for the seven years I was there, as he was the one who opened up his door to me until I found a job and a place to live just after we had both graduated from college. Given how long that took, most people would have been standing by the door drumming their fingers and waiting for me to leave, but with Sebastian one always felt like a welcomed guest.

But, perhaps ironically, two of the most vivid memories of I have of Sebastian are also among the most wholesome.

One dates back to our days at Bard College. I believe it was the autumn of 1995. Sebastian and I had for some reason ventured down to a set of dorms known as the Ravines, built, as the name would suggest, between a deep ravine and a field that would become a soggy lake at the slightest hint of rain. The weather was overcast and moody, the kind of fall-bleeding-into-winter weather that one so often encounters in the Catskills around that time of the year. We were standing by my car, which was a green 1976 Plymouth Valiant at the time, just enjoying the pensive atmosphere, the wind on our faces, the hint of precipitation in the air. At once the sky was full of several, then dozens, then what looked like hundreds of migrating birds, flooding the grey sky in search of a path to warmer climes.

I don't recall Sebastian and I saying much to one another at that moment - perhaps just an "Oh wow" or something like that - but I think it was a sight that affected us both powerfully. Here we were both nearing graduation and entry into another facet of life and the sight of those birds flying loose and free into the unknown somehow evoked the journey that we both were about to commence on, away from an environment that had become familiar for four years - if only as a point of reference - and into the as-yet-unwritten future of our new lives, with no telling where they would take us. As I write these words that was 16 years ago.

My second vivid memory is from the spring of 2003 when I was living in a nice-and-too-expensive loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn just south of the bridge. You could stand at the window during the cold months and watch the boats go up and down the river, carefully navigating their way past chunks of floating ice. As the weather got warmer, it was decided that a house-warming party was in order and when there was a party to be had, there was no better person to ask cook for it than Sebastian.

We decided to make feijoada, that delicious Brazilian beef and pork stew (Sebastian is probably more responsible than any other single person for my first trip to Brasil in 1999, a country I have since been back to several times and count as one of my favorites). We then went out to buy a suitable pot, which is looking down upon me from my mantle here in New Orleans right now as I write these words. Our system was that I would do the chopping and dicing and Sebastian would do the cooking. We bought the white rice, the black beans, the farofa and Sebastian - who I never tire of telling people was the single best cook that I have ever met - blended it all together perfectly. There was more than enough when we were done to feed the 20 or so people in attendance and suffice to say that I was eating feijoada for many days afterwards.

This memory is for me one that evokes a lot of elements of Sebastian, someone who was as excessive in his generosity as he was in anything else, someone who always wanted to make sure that everyone was fed, everyone was happy, everyone was included. That desire for community is one of the nicest traits anyone can have and on that day my friend Sebastian displayed, as always, that he possessed it in multitudes.

The sound of his laugh - booming, boisterous, all-encompassing - was one of the great things to experience in this life. I still hear it in my ears and with it comes the memory of my strange, generous, extraordinary friend.

Cuídate, Sebastian. Wherever you are, I hope that you are cooking a big pot of feijoada and listening to Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66 in the sun right now.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

NOLA Evolution

(With full credit given to Dirty Coast, whose terrific shop on Magazine Street I found only yesterday. MD)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Review of Erin Siegal’s ‘Finding Fernanda’

Posted on Sun, Dec. 11, 2011

Review of Erin Siegal’s ‘Finding Fernanda’

By Michael Deibert

The Miami Herald

Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth.

Erin Siegal.


300 pages.


(Read the original review here)

The debut book by journalist and photographer Erin Siegal has a mystery at its core: What happened to the two young daughters of an impoverished Guatemala woman named Mildred Alvarado, one of whom was literally snatched from her mother’s womb?

But the book — comprised of heavy-duty investigative reporting and compelling personal testimony — also examines another mystery: How could so many people in Guatemala and the United States turn a blind eye for so long to an industry that, far from being motivated by the altruistic urge to unite needy children with loving families, has become a world where adults dole out children like cards from a deck and view their young lives as little more than a commodity to be exploited?

Siegal does a compelling job of sketching out the drumbeat of poverty and fear, born of economic and criminal violence, that makes up the daily lives of so many Guatemalans today, 15 years after a peace agreement ended a 30-year civil war in which some 200,000 people died. Siegal also delves with considerable expertise into Guatemala’s labyrinthine and often corrupt legal system, painstakingly outlining its connections with U.S. organizations, some legitimate and some not.

Early on in the book, then-U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Prudence Bushnell — a diplomat who flits in and out of history from Rwanda to Kenya to Guatemala — warns in a prescient February 2002 memo that if the United States did not “come up with resources to investigate the suspicious (adoption) cases in a timely manner . . . [the U.S. could be] accused of abetting baby trafficking.”

The advice was largely ignored, with the behavior of U.S. embassy staff in Guatemala appearing alternately ham-handed and heartless as Alvarado tries to recover her children. Lax oversight by the Florida Department of Children and Families of the overseas adoption practices of companies operating in the state completes a picture of indifference to the children at the center of the adoption industry. Some practices were allowed to function long after red flags had been raised about criminal conduct.

This pattern continues even in the face of a report by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigating criminal organizations, that between 2008 and 2010 only 10 percent of children who left Guatemala for adoption were legal orphans.

Some of the details of the dark side of the industry in Guatemala — houses where pregnant women are kept while waiting to give birth, nurseries where children waiting to be adopted are given borderline-starvation levels of sustenance — are Dickensian in their cruelty. But the tone of the book is, perhaps surprisingly, not despairing. Siegal brings welcome attention to the work of the Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation), a women’s rights organization founded by an ex-guerrilla, Norma Cruz, that has grown into one of the most important pillars of the country’s fragile civil society.

Upon finishing Finding Fernanda, one realizes that supporting of that very civil society, along with the work of bodies such as CICIG, will advance the cause of justice for victims such as Alvarado. Along with its moving personal story of a family torn asunder, Finding Fernanda can also be read as a call to action.

Michael Deibert is the author of the forthcoming Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books).

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sonia Pierre 1963-2011

Sonia Pierre, you were the greatest patriot that the Dominican Republic could ask for, one of the greatest advocates for human rights in the Americas and a hero to us all. Your work and your example live on. Domi byen, fanm vanyan.